how to Make Homemade Lava Lamp

How to Make Homemade Lava Lamp: How Does It Work

You walk into a store, and suddenly, you notice this enchanting glass vessel with a liquid that is quivering and separating into varying colors and shapes. You want the fabulous item so bad but turns out you don’t have enough money to buy it.

Is all lost? Perhaps not. You can make one or more lava lamps at home! The process is actually a no-brainer and all the ingredients needed might be right there in your home.

This article will walk you through the process of making a lava lamp at home.

What is a lava lamp?

A lava lamp is a glass or plastic vessel that contains viscous translucent liquids with brilliantly colored substances rising and falling in different irregular shapes.

In as much as you can’t use lava lamps for lighting in the dark, these apparatuses are a great addition to your home, boat, plane, RV, etc.  Lava lamps are novelty pieces commonly used for decoration, adding motion and rhythm to your space.

You can make these lamps in range of patterns and glitters but note, you shouldn’t leave the lamp running for too long or it will heat up and explode or the patterns will stop forming.

It’s advisable not to place these lamps in a place where toddlers or animals can access them, bearing in mind that if the lamps are too hot, they could get burned, and again, toddlers and pets can drop and break these lamps. With proper guidance, older kids can use them.

Methods of Making A Lava Lamp at Home

Let’s get started.

We’re going to look at 2 methods – one for making a temporary lava lamp and another for making a permanent one. We will start with the temporary one.

How to Make a Temporary Lava Lamp

  • A clear water/soda bottle
  • Water
  • Vegetable oil
  • Food coloring
  • Salt or an effervescent tablet
  • A flashlight

This method is super easy even for kids. You can help your children through the process and show them how to handle a lava lamp correctly.

  • Take a large water or soda bottle with a capacity of at least 500 ml or 16 ounces and rinse it out. The reason why you need a large bottle is so you can view the display clearly.
  • Pour vegetable oil into the bottle till it’s about 75% full. Top off the remaining section with water and a few food coloring drops (10 to 15 will be enough). You want the contents to look a little dark once you’re done.
  • Add about half a teaspoon of salt into the bottle but if you have an Alka-Seltzer tablet or any effervescent tablet, that would be even better for making the lamp fizzy and exciting. You can find these tablets at a drug store.
  • Secure the bottle top and tilt the bottle a little. That way, the small drops of colored water in the bottle will merge, forming larger globules.
  • When the globules begin to move, pour in some more salt or break another tablet (if you have one) and add it in there.
  • Get a flashlight and place it beneath the bottle. The globules will get illuminated and the lava-lamp effect will manifest.

Here’s how that works: 

your science teacher might already have told you that water and oil are immiscible, as in, they never mix into one solution. When placed together in the same bottle, the two break into separate globules and when these globules move, they slip past one another.

The salt or the effervescent tablet is what gets the globules moving. Salt will sink to the bottom and drag an oil globule along. Soon enough, the salt gets dissolved into the water and the oil globule, having nothing to pull it towards the bottom, moves up again.

As for the tablet, it will react with the water, making little carbon dioxide bubbles, which get attached to the colored water globules and pull them up the bottle. Once the gas bubble pops, the globule sinks, and that goes on till there are no more gas bubbles, and the sight is remarkable.

The movement of colored fluids in this lava lamp lasts only a few moments, and that’s why it’s known as a temporary lava lamp.

Let’s now see how you can make a permanent lava lamp.

This method is a little more sensitive, using materials that are more flammable than the ones used in the previous method, and therefore, kids should execute it under supervision by an adult.

Watch this video if you want to know this technique in short time.

  • Get a clear glass jar with a tight-fitting lid that holds in the contents securely. It’s important that the jar is made of glass rather than plastic, because the former is able to withstand heat much better than the latter.
  • Pour some mineral oil into the bottle. You can pour in any amount you like and add some more later if you deem it necessary. The oil will form the lava. If you prefer a more dynamic lava lamp, you can mix the mineral oil with an artist's oil paint but don’t use too much artist's oil paint as that can cause the paint to separate and collect at the surface, creating a mess.
  • Pour some 90% isopropyl alcohol and 70% rubbing alcohol into the jar. You can buy these at a drug store.
  • You want to mix the two types of alcohol perfectly, so they can achieve a density similar to that of the oil. To pull that off, take one part of 70% rubbing alcohol and mix them with 1/2 part of 90% alcohol. Once you have put the mixture into the jar, the mineral oil will move to the bottom before bulging towards the center. If the bulge is not there, add a little more 70% rubbing alcohol but don’t focus too much on the bulge; you’re just starting out and you don’t have to be perfect at this stage.
  • Secure the lid tightly on the jar. Get a flower pot, place it on a table in the upside-down position, and place the jar on the pot. There ought to be adequate space below where you can place a small incandescent bulb.

Tip: don’t get a flower pot that can melt when heated. Go for a sturdy one that conducts heat properly.

  • Place an incandescent bulb (a 15 to 40-watt should be enough for a 350 ml jar) underneath the flower pot, directly below the jar. Heat from the bulb will cause the contents of the jar to expand, with the oil expanding a little quicker than the alcohol, and because of this, the oil will float to form the upper layer. There, it will cool down and shrink, and sink once more.

Tip: don’t use a high-powered bulb, else the glass will overheat and shatter. By installing a dimmer switch, you will be able to manage the light and heat efficiently.

Your lava lamp might take a few hours to get adequate heat and start functioning. You can place your hand on the jar every once in a while to feel how it’s catching warmth. Note that the jar should feel warm but not excessively hot, and if you feel the heat is too much, perhaps the bulb you’re using has too much wattage and needs to be replaced with a lower-watt one.

Warning: when leaving the house, turn off the bulb. Also, don’t let the heat remain on for more than 10 hours. The lava lamp needs to cool down at least after every 10 hours so it doesn’t overheat and fail or worse, explode.

When touching the lava lamp, it’s advisable to wrap your hand in a cloth, just in case the jar is too hot; you don’t want your hands getting scorched, do you?

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How are the lava lamp effects created?

The alka seltzer reacts with the water to form carbon dioxide gas bubbles, which then rise with the oil blobs and the entrapped colored water droplets. As the reaction slows down, the colored water droplets sink again.

 If you’re using salt instead of alka seltzer, the salt dissolves in the water, releasing the oil and the trapped colored water droplets, which rise to the surface.

2. Is it okay if I shake the lava lamp?

No, it’s not okay. If you shake the lamp, you will end up with a cloudy stuff instead of a functioning lava lamp, and that’s not what you want, is it?

 In the initial stages of making the lamp though, you can shake the oil and water; in any case, they will settle with the water going below and the oil floating on it.

3. Why doesn’t water mix with oil?

Water and oil are immiscible solvents. That is, they cannot mix. The reason is because oil molecules get more attracted to each other than to the water molecules. So, rather than mixing to form a uniform solution when put in the same container, the two liquids separate into two distinct layers.

 The water molecules are heavier (or denser) than the oil molecules, and thus they go to the bottom of the vessel and the oil molecules float on them.

4. Does the food coloring mix with the oil?

No. The food coloring will only mix with water. Coloring in the oil results from the oil entrapping tiny colored water droplets.

Final Word

Some folks are unable to make the permanent lava lamp at first attempt. Perhaps the oil will be trapped at bottom of the jar even after a few hours. If that is so, turn off the heat and let the jar cool down back totally. Then, open the jar and add a couple salt-water spoonfuls. This will boost the density of the alcohol, forcing the oil to move upwards.

Jiggle the jar a bit to disperse the oil into tinier globules but do this gently, otherwise you will be ending up with slush rather than lava. Add in a teaspoonful of turpentine and attempt to run the lava lamp again by placing a heat source underneath it.

 We hope you’ll be able to make a super-enchanting lava lamp at home using our method. Don’t hesitate to tell us how it goes!

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